Otsukuri raw fish platter: tuna, sea bream and horse-mackerel anyone?
After the Owan comes Otsukuri, the raw fish platter that outside of the Kansai region is termed sashimi. Otsukuri may at first glimpse appear to be a misnomer - it means 'the thing which is made' - and that may seem odd for a raw fish, until you remember the skill with which it is selected, sliced and served. Irfune only uses the freshest and finest. In today's case maguro tuna, tai sea-bream and shima-aji horse-mackerel.
The Hassun course takes pride of place at Kaiseki meals: no exception here
After the raw fish it's time for the Hassun, 'the Eight Tasty Dishes' course in which kaiseki chefs are encourgaed to show off their true skills (as if Usui-san hasn't already!). Takes long breath. Our hassun course included: sweet kuromame black beans; tazukuri, small dry-roasted sardines, served in a sweet sauce; temari-fu ball-shaped gluten; kazunoko herring roe, seri to hoshigake dried persimon shiramono-ae; atsuage tamago egg, emblazoned with the kanji character for good luck, kotobuki; (above picture, top left) namako sea-cucumber mizore-ae; and kumoko blowfish milt with kuwai-dofu and yuzumiso (above picture bottom right).
What a mouthful, literally and metaphorically. The kumoko, in particular, was out of this world, and 'learn how to make yuzumiso' is now top of my 2018 New Year's resolutions list. Who would have thought, when I left Yorkshire 31 years ago, I'd be writing that last sentence? Not least as kumoko is the seminal fluid of the poisonous fugu pufferfish...
Buri no Saikyo-yaki yellowtail: another Kyoto specialty dish
The next course, Yakimono, literally means 'grilled things', and is a direct left-over from the rather more restrained chakaiseki-style of dining that would accompany tea ceremonies here in Kyoto (and indeed still do today). The yakimono is usually fish, and so it was to be here, with buri no Saikyo-yaki, yellowtail marinated in Saikyo miso(pictured here above), a miso from the Arashiyama and Katsura areas of Western Kyoto. This was just superb, and came served with the festive red-and-white kohaku namasu daikon and sugukioroshi grated pickled suguki turnip.
By this time I was beginning to flag a little. Only four courses left I told myself. My in-laws showed no sign of slowing down, so I kept on. And was I glad? The Takiawase course always consists of vegetables and fish, simmered separately and then combined to perfection. A great takiawase is a thing of beauty, and this was no disappointment. Usui-san served up one of my favorites, yakianago grilled conger eel with yuba, kabu turnip, shungiku greens, and hariyuzu grated yuzu citrus. What a thing of delicacy and grace! The eel was melt in the mouth soft, as was the yuba tofu skin, with just the crunch and aromatic subtlety of the vegetables to provide the crunchy, very mildly sour contrast, all topped with that wonderfully aromatic yuzu topping.
Mushizushi 'hot sushi', no less
The seventh course was testing my limits. It is known as Gohan, yes, literally 'rice' and is indeed that. Usui-san served it in the mushizushi-style, a kind of 'warm sushi' with koshi-tamago egg, ikura salmon roe, kani crab, takenoko young bamboo, shiitake mushrooms and unagi eel. I must confess that it was around half way through that I raised the white flag and asked assistance from the cavalry - in the shape of Mrs A and her brother. They polished off what remained in several seconds. My Japanese family sure can tuck it away, despie having an average height of about 5ft2 and with waistlines to match. The drinks continued to flow, and keeping notes was definitely getting harder!
After sake, wine and champagne taking notes was not easy and neither were the kanji characters
As we entered course number eight, the Tomewan - literally 'the stopping bowl' - I began to utilise what the Japanese refer to as your 'betsu bara'. It is your 'separate stomach', ie, the second wind that allows you to make it to the end of the kaiseki meal in one piece. The sumashi jitate clear soup was both tasty, and an easy ask even after all that feasting!
Bravo! The Tomewan clear soup signals you've nearly made it to the end
Finally, course number nine was here, the Mizumono fruit selection. A Western pear, beni madonna orange, ichigo strawberry, and wine jelly signalled the Japanese New Year feast had finally reached its conclusion. It was something of a marathon, but what fun and what a taste sensation, marking my 31st year in the Foodie heaven that is Japan. Thankyou Irifune, thankyou Chef Usui, and thankyou to my father-in-law who had to shoulder the bill!
Irifune @ Hotel Okura, Kyoto
Japan 〒604-0924 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Nakagyo Ward, Ichinofunairicho, 537−4
Tel 81-75-254-2537 or 81-75-211-5123
BREAKFAST 7:00 - 10:00
LUNCH 11:30 - 14:30
DINNER 17:30 - 21:00
Price range: Irifune Kaiseki lunch at New Year 10,000 yen
Accepted: Cash / Visa / MasterCard / Amex/JCB/Diners
Smokers allowed? : No